Posted 26th Dec 2013
You can't beat Boxing Day spent in the great outdoors, stealing glimpses of glorious winter wildlife. The Wildlife Trusts offer families a fresh-air filled festive period, with 10 walks and some wonderfully wild spectacles to look out for
Taking time out from the telly to wander through the countryside or discover secret inner city wildlife havens offers a dose of nature at close quarters, providing perfect natural relief from any tinsel tensions. Here are some suggestions for wild days out over the festive period:
Wild wonders to discover
It's the best time of year to watch ducks, geese and swans for two reasons: the highest numbers of birds are present in winter months, and drakes are in their brightest and best plumage. Look out for huge flocks of migratory geese, especially in coastal areas, and for some of our less common ducks, including pintail, goldeneye, long-tailed duck, red-breasted merganser and goosander.
Find roosting birds
Some nature reserves, especially on the coast and on wetlands and heathlands, have exciting raptor roosts where you can spot hen harrier, marsh harrier, merlin and other birds of prey flying in to night-time roosts. You may spot birds all flying in the same direction, heading to safe roost sites an hour before sunset. Pied wagtails and even wrens gather in numbers to roost together for warmth. Starling roosts can be spectacular with huge flocks twisting and turning in the air at sunset before diving into cover where they will roost for the night. In some places, rooks, jackdaws, carrion crows and even ravens gather at communal roosts.
Listen for woodpeckers drumming and tawny owls hooting
Both begin their courtship displays in winter. Tawny owls are at their noisiest from December and great-spotted woodpeckers (pictured left) begin drumming in January and February.
Look for tracks, trails and signs of mammals
Winter is the best time to find tracks and trails as there are fewer plants to obscure tracks on the ground, and plenty of muddy areas and damp soft ground. Should we get a white Christmas, snowfall provides a wonderful opportunity to study animal tracks. Look for the double slot tracks of deer, or the prints of fox, badger or even an otter.
Discover holly, ivy and mistletoe
Winter evergreens provide a welcome touch of green in bleak mid-winter. Only the female holly tree has red berries, traditionally used in Christmas decorations. Mistletoe was always a magical plant and symbol of fertility and today is brought into homes for people to kiss under. Ivy is great for wildlife and you may spot woodpigeons or other birds feeding on the black berries of ivy in late winter.
What to take
Share this small selection of six spotting sheets:
1. Festive wildlife detective
Count down 10 of the 12 Days of Christmas with this festive-themed spotting sheet. Your partridge doesn't have to be in a pear tree to count!
2. Christmas card wildlife spotter
All of these creatures have appeared on Wildlife Trust Christmas cards in recent years, but can you spot them in the wild?
3. Goose and swan detective
Winter is a great to time to look out for flocks of swans and geese. You might think the UK is a bit of chilly place to spend the winter, but for many of these birds it's like a summer holiday!
4. Winter wader detective
Wetlands, coastlines and estuaries can be full of wading birds during the winter. With their long legs and beaks they can be tricky to tell apart
5. Crows and other black birds
In late winter you might notice large flocks of dark birds feeding on empty fields, swirling about through the air or generally making a racket in trees. Can you tell which species they are?
6. City dwelling wildlife
You don't need to be in the countryside to see wildlife. Towns and cities are home to many plants and animals. Here's a spotting sheet of some of the more famous city dwellers.
The Wildlife Trusts care for more than 2,300 of some of the most beautiful wild places in the UK - landscapes that not only look gorgeous but are all the more precious because they are carefully managed to ensure that wildlife can thrive.
Where to walk
Attenborough Nature Reserve, Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust
Attenborough Nature Reserve, established in 1966 and opened by Sir David Attenborough, is best known for its birds. It's an important area for winter wildfowl and often holds a high proportion of the county's shoveler and diving ducks, with good numbers of goldeneyes, pochards and larger numbers of mallard, teal, and occasionally wigeon. Scarcer wildfowl such as sawbills and sea ducks are recorded regularly and cormorants are common.
Walking the full circuit of about four miles takes approximately 2-2½ hours. If you only have half an hour, explore the ponds around the car park area to see a wide range of water birds, take a stroll round the area behind the nature centre or to the kingfisher bird hide along the path towards the River Trent.
Close Sartfield, Manx Wildlife Trust
Close Sartfield - known for its magnificent orchid displays in the summer - is excellent for bird watching during the winter months. Hen harriers are seen frequently throughout the year and the hide is well sited to observe their evening return to a mid-winter roost. In fact, Close Sartfield is one of the densest and most accessible winter hen harrier roosts in western Europe. Visitors to the hide may be lucky enough to see a peregrine or a merlin. Corncrakes have been sighted on the reserve in recent years too. Breeding species within the reserve include lesser redpoll, grasshopper warbler, reed bunting, sedge warbler, whitethroat, curlew and probably water rail. The one mile circular walk around the reserve should only take about an hour, but you get a chance to walk through meadows, marshy grassland, curragh (willow carr) and developing birch woodland.
Grafham Water, The Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs & Northants
This Wildlife Trust's nature reserve at Grafham Water is one of the prime bird-watching sites in the county, with osprey and the occasional Slavonian grebe alongside the more familiar resident mallards and greylag geese. In winter, this reservoir attracts large numbers of diving ducks, such as gadwall and shoveler, as well as nationally important populations of coot and great crested grebe. It is best known for its over-wintering wildfowl and waders. With nine miles of shoreline, Anglian Water's Grafham Water reservoir - of which WTBCN's nature reserve is a part - has around 170 species of bird recorded each year. The full cycle circuit of the reservoir is eight miles but a network of shorter paths and trails around the nature reserve take from 30 minutes.
Westhay Moor, Somerset Wildlife Trust
The lakes, reedbeds and woodlands of Westhay Moor provide a winter haven for many species of bird. Westhay's waterways regularly play host to diving ducks such as goldeneye and goosander which fly down from their breeding grounds in Scotland and further afield. It is also worth a winter visit to Westhay to enjoy the great congregations of mute swans ‘swanning' about on the water, having moved in from the surrounding areas during cold weather. The reedbeds provide winter shelter for other important species. Bitterns have been regular winter visitors to Westhay's reedbeds for years - listen out for their distinctive 'boom' as the males seek to attract a mate. Listen out for the peculiar pinging call of bearded tits as well. They are an astonishing-looking bird which is hopefully making a welcome recovery on the Levels.
Glaslyn, Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust
Glaslyn is the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust's biggest nature reserve, an integral part of the Cambrian Mountains. During the winter, the lake attracts diving ducks, goldeneye and Greenland white-fronted geese. Tufted ducks and cormorants can also be spotted. The circular walking route takes approximately two hours at an easy pace. Walking through the reserve, you will appreciate the landscape of the Welsh mountains and the reserve's lake, bogs, heathland and steep ravine, all culminating in a breathtaking view of the Dyfi valley and the green patchwork of the Welsh lowlands below.
Montrose Basin, Scottish Wildlife Trust
Just minutes from the centre of Montrose, this tidal basin plays host to large numbers of wildfowl, waders and up to 60,000 migrating geese each year. Winter is the best time to see all the wintering wildfowl, such as the 4,000 visiting wigeon, pintail, mallard and eider ducks. Large concentrations of waders such as redshank, knot and oystercatcher will also be present. The full circuit of the reserve is 10 miles long, with other suggested walks in the reserve guide available at the visitor centre, which offers magnificent views of wildlife on the basin through high-powered telescopes.
Bog Meadows, Ulster Wildlife Trust
Winter is the best time to see the variety of ducks, geese and swans that overwinter here. Watch along the pond margins and in the meadows for snipe. In fact, Bog Meadows is excellent for birds, with 50 species of breeding birds and over 100 non-breeding species recorded in the past. It was the last recorded breeding site of the corncrake in the Greater Belfast area - an extremely rare bird in Northern Ireland. Situated in West Belfast beside the M1 motorway, this nature reserve is a hub of biodiversity, composed of a mosaic of reedbeds, meadows, ponds, woodland, streams and hedgerows. There are over 3km of ‘access for all' paths. A leisurely stroll around the trail would take about 45 minutes.
Hanningfield Reservoir, Essex Wildlife Trust
Look out for winter ducks on the reservoir, such as goldeneye and pintail; if you are in luck, something rarer like scaup, common scoter or great northern diver may also be present. The woods and hedgerows will be home to foraging tit flocks, winter thrushes such as the redwing and finches, and siskin. Look out for mistletoe in the trees too. The visitor centre, which boasts outstanding views over the 870-acre reservoir, has a shop selling toys, cards, optics, bird feeders and food, as well as light refreshments and seating around a cosy wood burner.
Potteric Carr, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust
Potteric Carr Nature Reserve is famed for its wetland birds, including bitterns, lapwings, golden plover and kingfisher in winter. A network of paths allows visitors to explore the mosaic of habitats found on this 200 hectare site, which is home to over 150 species of birds. Foxes, roe deer and weasel are often seen, particularly in winter when their prints in the snow give them away. Following a good walk, enjoy a warming drink and delicious scone at the Kingfisher Tearooms to finish the day.
Roydon Woods, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust
Roydon Woods is situated within the New Forest National Park. At Christmas-time, deer can be seen or heard in the woodland, which is alive with bird song all year round. The grasslands and heaths are grazed by cattle and New Forest ponies. The combination of a wide range of woodlands and associated plant communities gives rise to a rich diversity of plant and animal species, making Roydon Woods an exciting place to visit.
Images courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts: Dave Appleton, Amy Lewis, Gillian Day and Bob Coyle